November may be crunch time for college football and even the NFL, but college basketball is doing its best to steal some attention away.
Between the 29 straight hours of live-game coverage in ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon and the Final Four-like Champions Classic pitting four of the top five teams in the nation against each other, it’s been a marquee start to the year.
You can now put the release of the John R. Wooden Award Preseason Top 50 on that list of recent college basketball headline-grabbers. Read on to get a power ranking of all 50 candidates based on their chances at winning the award, not necessarily their respective talent levels.
50. Willie Cauley-Stein, F, Kentucky
An actual Kentucky player that isn’t a freshman; will provide Wildcats with rebounding and formidable interior defense
49. Joel Embiid, C, Kansas
The freshman you haven’t heard of at Kansas; gives Jayhawks much-needed paint presence to go with talented wings
48. Andre Hollins, G, Minnesota
Minnesota’s best chance at the NCAA tournament; premier playmaker that will give the Big Ten’s best fits this year
47. Keith Appling, G, Michigan State
Steady hand at point guard for Tom Izzo’s veteran-laden squad; hard to win this award, though, as third-best player on own team
46. Elfrid Payton, G, Louisiana
High-scoring guard for Louisiana; will absolutely dominate in the Sun Belt this season
45. Kyle Anderson, G/F, UCLA
Somewhat of a disappointment last year but should develop into one of Pac-12’s best players as a sophomore (and no Shabazz Muhammad to steal opportunities).
44. Cory Jefferson, F, Baylor
Points, rebounds and blocks—Baylor gets all three from its senior forward as it tries to venture back to the Big Dance this season
43. Jarnell Stokes, F, Tennessee
Tennessee is much improved this year, and Stokes is a primary reason why; rebounding machine and will score in double figures this year
42. Kevin Pangos, G, Gonzaga
There won’t be a No. 1 seed for Gonzaga this year, but Pangos could win WCC Player of the Year as he leads the Zags back to March
41. Montrezl Harrell, F, Louisville
Candidate for the nation’s most improved player this year; critical piece in the Cardinals’ title defense
40. Cleanthony Early, F, Wichita State
Best remaining player from last year’s surprise Final Four team; will score and rebound at will in the Creighton-less Missouri Valley
39. Spencer Dinwiddie, G, Colorado
Maybe the best West Coast player you have never heard of; huge scoring threat for Colorado
38. Semaj Christon, G, Xavier
Xavier’s best chance at returning to the NCAA tournament after disappointing year; will be national presence now that he is in the Big East
37. Dwight Powell, F, Stanford
Double-double threat every time he steps on the court; steady and consistent producer
36. Alex Kirk, C, New Mexico
The giant of the Mountain West Conference; expect double-double numbers at the very minimum
35. Jordan McRae, G, Tennessee
Tennessee’s top offensive threat; should help lead the Vols to the NCAA tournament with a big senior year
34. Juvonte Reddic, F, VCU
Arguably the best mid-major in the country; VCU’s best scorer and rebounder and critical cog in its famous “havoc” defense
33. Sean Kilpatrick, G, Cincinnati
Perhaps the only player outside of Connecticut and Memphis that can compete with Louisville in the AAC; big-time scorer and rebounder
32. Jordan Adams, G, UCLA
Premier scorer and defender on the perimeter; will rack up impressive steal totals to go with points
31. Isaiah Austin, C, Baylor
Baylor’s best chance at making the Big 12 a three-horse race with Kansas and Oklahoma State; should dominate in rebounding and block departments
30. Mitch McGary, F, Michigan
Would be higher but back issues may linger; coming out party in NCAA tournament showed nation his rebounding and scoring prowess down low
29. Joe Jackson, G, Memphis
Memphis’ premier playmaker gets a shot at the likes of Louisville, Cincinnati and Connecticut this year in new conference
28. James Michael McAdoo, F, North Carolina
Still hasn’t lived up to hype but has chance as go-to option for Tar Heels as long as P.J. Hairston’s status is up in the air
27. Kendall Williams, G, New Mexico
With no more Tony Snell, Williams is the best player on New Mexico; looking for redemption after stunning tournament loss to Harvard
26. Andrew Harrison, G, Kentucky
He, along with twin brother Aaron, will be responsible for finding enough shots for everyone on loaded Kentucky squad; formidable scorer and defender himself
25. Jerian Grant, G, Notre Dame
Expect big-time scoring, assist and steal numbers from the leader of the Irish
24. Noah Vonleh, F, Indiana
The freshman expected to carry on the resurgence and winning ways of Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo in Bloomington; no pressure or anything
23. Dez Wells, G/F, Maryland
Premier playmaker for the Terps who is looking to get his squad into the NCAA tournament after missing out last year; scorer and facilitator
22. Wayne Selden, Jr., G, Kansas
Primary benefactor of the extra defensive attention Andrew Wiggins will receive; look for him to put up similar scoring numbers in Kansas’ offense
21: Rasheed Sulaimon, G, Duke
Duke player most ready to make “the jump” from first to second year; three-point threat on the perimeter and formidable defender as well
20. Joe Harris, G, Virginia
Arguably the most underappreciated player in the country; premier scorer who has a chance to stun ACC Player of Year candidates from Blue Devils, Orange and Tar Heels
19. Sam Dekker, F, Wisconsin
Get used to this name; best player in Bo Ryan’s consistently excellent system that will give more talented teams fits in March
18. Jahii Carson, G, Arizona State
Perhaps the fastest player in the country; worth staying up late to watch him lead the Sun Devils in transition
17. Shabazz Napier, G, Connecticut
Senior leader who could be biggest thorn in Louisville’s side during the regular season; clutch performer and easy to trust with the ball in his hands late in the game or shot clock
16. James Young, G, Kentucky
Could lead the Wildcats in points scored by simply spotting up behind the three-point line and waiting for defenses to collapse on Harrison brothers or Julius Randle in post
15. Glenn Robinson III, F, Michigan
Michigan’s alpha dog after losing Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.; will rank among the Big Ten’s leaders in points scored
14: LaQuinton Ross, F, Ohio State
Showed talent level in NCAA tournament; will replace Deshaun Thomas’ conference-leading scoring totals and grab close to double-digit rebounds along the way
13: Tyler Haws, G, BYU
Absolute scoring machine for a BYU team that could be dangerous for Gonzaga in the WCC
12. Rodney Hood, F, Duke
Jabari Parker gets the headlines, but Hood is nearly as talented; can score and rebound with almost anyone in the country and will have plenty of open looks alongside Parker
11. Aaron Craft, G, Ohio State
Arguably the best defender in the nation who will also rack up plenty of assists in transition offense after steals; plus award voters seem to love him
Jim Boeheim’s best player kicks off our top 10 and for good reason.
C.J. Fair will lead Syracuse into a loaded ACC this year and should contend for the conference’s player of the year award right away. Fair is the primary offensive option for a relatively young team, but he will need to do more than just score.
Fair needs to be the leading rebounder and shot-blocker in almost every game for the Orange to compete with the Dukes and North Carolinas of the world. Fortunately for Boeheim, Fair is talented enough to do just that.
He will anchor the suffocating 2-3 zone and score plenty of points on the offensive end.
Gary Harris was chosen as the Big Ten’s preseason player of the year, which is saying something considering the talent level in that conference. In fact, the Big Ten had more players named to this Wooden Award watch list than any other league with 10.
Harris is only a sophomore on a veteran-laden team, but he should lead the Spartans in scoring thanks to his shooting and driving prowess. He has soft touch at the rim and can finish through contact as well when he gets there.
Harris is also formidable on the defensive end, which is practically mandatory in Tom Izzo’s system. If the Spartans are going to challenge the likes of Kentucky, Duke, Louisville and Kansas among others for the national title, Harris will be a primary reason why.
Now that Peyton Siva is no longer on campus, Russ Smith is the unquestioned leader on the perimeter for the defending champions.
It appeared as if he was heading to the NBA for a time during the offseason, but fortunately for Rick Pitino and Louisville fans he elected to finish his collegiate career. Smith has always had issues with shot selection and turnovers, but now he is a senior and should have a better understanding of what he needs to do to prevent those problems.
Look for Smith to dominate in the American Athletic Conference. He will tally impressive scoring numbers as always, but with so much of the offense running through his hands, he should rack up plenty of assists as well.
Arizona may have gone to the Sweet 16 last year and lost Mark Lyons and Solomon Hill, but expectations around the program are even higher this season.
The reason so many expect the Wildcats to compete for the Final Four and perhaps even national championship is Sean Miller’s impressive recruiting class. Aaron Gordon is the leader of that group and could win Pac-12 Player of the Year as a freshman.
Gordon is a strong rebounder and dominant post scorer. He will outmuscle taller opponents on the block and can play above the rim with ease thanks to his formidable leaping ability. Look for plenty of easy baskets in the lane and blocked shots on the other end.
In terms of pure talent level, Julius Randle probably deserves to be higher than six on this list. In fact, if he taps into his potential, he could even be the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft.
However, the Wooden Award is all about college numbers, and the fact that there are so many talented players on the Kentucky roster hurts his chances. There will be games when the Harrison brothers, Dakari Johnson, James Young or someone else will dominate and cut into Randle’s individual numbers.
That being said, Randle will dominate on a national stage all year. Between his scoring prowess and rebounding ability, he is a double-double threat every time he steps on the court. He will be in the running for the Wooden Award all season.
Michigan State has that rare mix of experience and talent that is often needed to make a run at a national title. Throw in one of the best coaches in the country in Tom Izzo, and anything less than a Final Four will be disappointing in East Lansing.
Adreian Payne will dominate on both ends of the floor for the Spartans now that Derrick Nix is no longer on the roster. The middle of the paint belongs to Payne, and you would be hard pressed finding a better two-way player down low than him in the country.
He will score down low and on the perimeter, block plenty of shots and thrill fans will impressive dunks all season. Gary Harris and Keith Appling may steal some votes from him, though, when it comes to the Wooden Award.
Andrew Wiggins isn’t the only college freshman that was compared to LeBron James as a high school prospect.
Jabari Parker, the latest of a long line of talent that hails from Chicago, is the best player on a Duke team that will be in the national spotlight every time out. He can score at will from almost anywhere on the floor, is a solid passer when opposing defenders collapse on him and will likely lead the Blue Devils in rebounding.
If Parker leads Coach K’s squad to an ACC championship and Final Four berth, it will be hard to argue against him when it comes to the Wooden Award. NBA scouts will surely be watching.
Perhaps you have heard of Andrew Wiggins?
The much-hyped freshman basically has to play at a LeBron James-like level all season for the Jayhawk to live up to the immense expectations that have been placed on his young shoulders. While that may be unfair (and could cost him votes if he simply has an excellent season instead of a purely dominant one), there is a reason he is surrounded by so much publicity.
He is incredibly talented and will look to lead Kansas to yet another Big 12 title as a scorer and rebounder. If he develops into a formidable facilitator as well, his assist totals will be impressive based on the number of double-teams he will see alone.
Wooden Award or not, Wiggins is the favorite to be the next No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.
The most important news that didn’t involve recruiting this offseason on a national level was Marcus Smart deciding to come back for his sophomore season.
Smart was the superstar freshman last year that led Oklahoma State to a solid season and No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. However, he has much higher expectations this time around and is the best chance any team has at knocking Kansas off the Big 12 throne.
Unlike many superstars, Smart is a game changer on both ends of the floor. He will rank among the nation’s leader in steals while scoring better than 15 points a night and racking up plenty of assists.
Enjoy him while he lasts Cowboys fans, because chances are he won’t be around for his junior campaign.
There may be players across the country who are more talented than Doug McDermott, but even that list would be a short one.
McDermott is looking to become the first three-time member of the Wooden Award All-American team since Tyler Hansbrough dominated for the Tar Heels. He is the odds-on favorite to lead the nation in points per game because of his incredible efficiency and high-usage statistics.
Plenty of players take a lot of shots, but few hit them at the rate McDermott does. He is a formidable three-point shooter, can hit from mid-range and can even score on the block. Look for McDermott to continue posting eye-popping numbers, and now that he is in the Big East he will receive even more credit for it on a national level.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.